Martin Luther and the Reformation

views updated

Martin Luther and the Reformation



Primary Motivation. Christian humanists were eager for church reform, but they were surprised by the direction it took when the German cleric Martin Luther emerged as its leader. He accepted much of the humanist program, but he found infuriating its indifference to the importance of precise definitions of doctrine and sense that human imperfection made finding truth impossible. Luther emerged from his youthful confusion and doubt over how he or anyone could be saved with a profound conviction that he had found the correct answer. This confidence that they had found the truth of the gospels marked all the major Protestant leaders and suggests that the primary motivation behind the Reformation was the reform of doctrine, not the reform of clerical abuses, as much as the first Protestants complained about them.

Importance of Faith. Young Luther engaged in a ferocious struggle with himself over the issue of his salvation. How could one as sinful as he be saved? Becoming a monk, a priest, and a theologian, confessing his sins, and performing the many pious acts that Catholicism declared would bring the human soul to salvation failed to assure him that he could be saved. His appointment as professor of biblical theology at the University of Wittenberg led him to read the Bible far more carefully than before. Not even Catholic priests then read the Bible extensively. Luther's friend, Andreas von Karlstedt, said that despite being a priest, he had never actually seen a Bible until he joined Luther at Wittenberg. Most scholastic theologians used the Bible little, depending on the commentaries written by their precursors. Luther was unusual in his era in the extent to which he read the Scriptures. He made the Scriptures the keystone of the Reformation because he found in them the answer he was desperately seeking to the question of how he could attain salvation. In Paul's Epistle to the Romans (1, 17) Luther found the words that created Protestantism: “The just shall live by faith.” This opened up to him the concept of justification by faith alone or solafideism, from Latin sola fide for “faith alone.” Luther took solace in the idea that it is faith in Christ alone that brings salvation. The grace to have faith in Christ is entirely a gift from a merciful and gracious God, and the human soul is not capable of rejecting it. However, not all souls receive the grace of faith. Good works or pious acts cannot influence God's decision about who will receive grace. There is no spark of goodness in the soul that divine grace can kindle, as the nominalist theologians maintained. It follows that God has chosen from eternity who will be saved, but who they are is hidden in the mind of God. Luther accepted the doctrine of predestination, but he did not wish to emphasize it because he concentrated on the importance of faith.


The following is an excerpt from Twelve Articles, a list of twelve demands of the Swabian peasants in 1524. The 1524–1525 Peasants' War was the first peasant revolt after the Reformation to employ the doctrines of Martin Luther to justify political and social causes. The Swabian peasants believed that their ideas were consistent with Lutheran beliefs so they sent a copy to Luther and solicited his response. Luther rejected the peasants' advocacy of violence in Admonition to Peace, A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia. After the peasants openly rebelled he wrote a second treatise in 1525 entitled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.

To the Christian Reader Peace and the Grace of God through Christ. There are many Antichrists who on account of the assembling of the peasants, cast scorn upon the gospel, and say: Is this the fruit of the new teaching, that no one obeys but all everywhere rise in revolt, and band together to reform, extinguish, indeed kill the temporal and spiritual authorities. The following articles will answer these godless and blaspheming fault-finders. They will first of all remove the reproach from the word of God and secondly give a Christian excuse for the disobedience or even the revolt of the entire peasantry. . . . Therefore, Christian reader, read the following articles with care, and then judge. Here follow the articles:

The First Article. First, it is our humble petition and desire, indeed our will and resolution, that in the future we shall have power and authority so that the entire community should choose and appoint a minister, and that we should have the right to depose him should he conduct himself improperly. The minister thus chosen should teach us the holy gospel pure and simple, without any human addition, doctrine, or ordinance. ...

The Second Article. Since the right tithe is established in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New, we are ready and willing to pay the fair tithe of grain. Nonetheless, it should be done properly. The word of God plainly provides that it should be given to God and passed on to His own. If it is to be given to a minister, we will in the future collect the tithe through our church elders, appointed by the congregation and distribute from it, to the sufficient livelihood of the minister and his family elected by the entire congregation. The remainder shall be given to the poor of the place, as the circumstances and the general opinion demand....

The Third Article. It has been the custom hitherto for men to hold us as their own property, which is pitiable enough considering that Christ has redeemed and purchased us without exception, but the shedding of His precious blood, the lowly as well as the great. Accordingly, it is consistent with Scripture that we should be free and we wish to be so. . .,

The Fourth Article. In the fourth place, it has been the custom heretofore that no poor man was allowed to catch venison or wild fowl, or fish in flowing water, which seems to us quite unseemly and unbrotherly, as well as selfish and not according to the word of God . ..

The Fifth article. In the fifth place we are aggrieved in the matter of woodcutting, for our noble folk have appropriated all the woods to themselves alone ... It should be free to every member of the community to help himself to such firewood as he needs in his home. Also, if a man requires wood for carpenter's purposes he should have it free, but with the approval of a person appointed by the community for that purpose.....

Sources: Hans J. Hillerbraad, ed, The Protestant Reformation (New York: Walker, 1968), pp. 64–65.

Hillerbrand, ed, The Reformation. A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), pp.389–391.

Sale of Indulgences. When Luther had this transforming experience of faith has never been precisely determined. Most biographers of Luther believe it did occur before the posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517, as their content suggests that he had already begun to reject elements of Catholicism. The Indulgence Controversy, which sparked the writing of the theses, encompassed two major aspects of Catholic doctrine and practice that the Protestants could not accept because they found them lacking a basis in Scripture. The concept of the indulgence, that one could shorten the time in Purgatory by prayer, a pious act, or a donation, had come to include the possibility that it could be applied to the souls of those already dead, not just to one's own soul. When Julius II decided to raze old St. Peter's basilica and build a new church, he proclaimed a special indulgence for donations for building it. Most Catholic rulers prevented the collection of the St. Peter's indulgence, but the Holy Roman Emperor's weakness in Germany made it impossible for him to do the same. Indulgence preachers fanned out across Germany along with bankers' agents to handle the money. An indulgence preacher, Johann Tetzel, arrived in the region near Witten berg in mid 1517. He recited a ditty encouraging peasants to give the small sum for a St. Peter's indulgence: “Whenever a coin in this box rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” When Luther learned of Tetzel's activity, he was enraged. The sale of indulgences offended him in at least three ways. Even worse than the theologians suggesting that good works could earn salvation, it proposed that salvation could be bought. The idea that the living could reduce the punishment for the dead challenged his new understanding that forgiveness and salvation was a personal matter between God and the individual soul, not a collective matter for the Christian community. Luther believed that the peasants were being defrauded, since they were getting nothing for their money.

Ninety-five Theses. In October 1517, Luther wrote, in Latin, ninety-five points of theology that he wanted the Wittenberg faculty to debate. According to tradition, he posted them on the door of the university church on 31 October. While many of the Ninety-five Theses dealt with indulgences, others touched broadly on salvation and forgiveness. A century earlier the matter would have resulted in a debate at Wittenberg and some other universities; in 1517 the presence of the printing press led to a far different outcome. Luther's text was translated into German and printed in thousands of copies that rapidly spread across Germany, reducing greatly the income from the indulgence and making Luther a household name throughout Germany. Although Pope Leo X first dismissed the dispute as a “drunken monks' quarrel,” he changed his mind when the income from the indulgence dropped and Luther's popularity became known. Pressure was applied to silence Luther, but it only succeeded in angering a man who had a strong stubborn streak.

True Culprit. The key event in the path to Luther's open break with Rome was the Leipzig debate of mid 1519. In time-honored academic fashion, Johann Eck, a scholastic theologian, challenged Luther to debate publicly the issues raised. Eck was a talented theologian, and he succeeded in pushing Luther into making public statements that revealed how deeply the doctrine of solafide-ism undercut many traditional practices of the Catholic Church. The key issue of the debate was the nature of the pope's authority, whether it came from God as Eck declared or it was merely human, as Luther argued. Eck charged Luther with being a Hussite, the first time that Luther was openly charged with heresy. It forced Luther to read Hus's works carefully, and he found that he agreed with much of what the Czech theologian had argued a century earlier. The debate persuaded Luther that the corruption of doctrine in the Church was not simply a matter of recent generations of clergymen but extended far into the past. The record of the three-week-long debate was printed up and spread across Germany, raising Luther's popularity still higher. After the Leipzig debate Luther concluded that it was the papacy itself that was corrupting the Church, and a true Christian could not accept papal authority.

Clarifying Statements. In 1520 Luther published three major treatises that put forward in a more-systematic way all his insights about the errors in doctrine, ritual, and church governance that he saw present in the Catholic Church. The first was Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, in which he urged the German princes to overthrow the unjust domination of the pope over the German Church. He denounced papal claims of authority over secular rulers, the sole right to call church councils, and the unique power to interpret the Bible. Luther also revealed that he had rejected clerical celibacy and monasti-cism. He called on the German ruling class to take the lead in reforming the Church. Luther's second treatise, written in Latin for theologians, was the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It set out the implications of Luther's beliefs for the Catholic sacramental system. He found only two sacraments—baptism and the Eucharist—with a basis in the New Testament. In respect to baptism he had little disagreement with the Catholic practice, but his doctrine of the Eucharist was different in two key ways. Luther agreed with Hus that the sacrament would be complete only if the cup was shared with the laity, but his doctrine of Christ's presence in the sacrament was consubstantia-tion, not transubstantiation. Luther believed Christ's body and blood were truly present along with the bread and wine of the sacrament. Luther's third work of 1520 was On the Freedom of the Christian. His use of the word freedom referred to the believer as being free from sin and the devil. He also defined his doctrine of the priesthood of the believers. There can be no difference among Christians between clergy and laity; all stand equal before God in faith and grace. All the baptized are priests because they share in the spiritual estate. Luther did agree that there is an office of minister, who preached the Gospel and presided over the sacraments. Being a minister, however, conferred no special privileges on earth. Every occupation had equal merit as an opportunity to serve God in the world. This view led to the Protestant definition of “vocation” as referring to a career in the secular world, not a calling to the life in the clergy.

Outlaw. In December 1520 a papal bull (document sealed with a lead bulla) was sent to Luther threatening excommunication if he did not retreat from his views. He responded by burning it along with a book of church law. This made it clear that he did not accept the authority of the Pope to judge him. Leo X demanded that Emperor Charles V arrest Luther for heresy. Charles summoned Luther before a meeting of the Imperial Diet at the city of Worms in June 1521. The emperor provided him with a safe conduct to ensure his safety there. Luther's friends in the Diet defended him, but the decision to condemn him was a foregone conclusion. He was called upon to retract his errors but instead made one of the great addresses of history, which concluded: “I am bound by the Scriptures I have cited and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. God help me.

Amen!” Despite Luther's address he was condemned as an outlaw, which removed him from the protection of the law, and meant that anyone could legally strike him dead. Honoring the safe conduct, the emperor allowed Luther to leave Worms, and his friends whisked him away to Wart-burg Castle.

Exile. At the castle Luther set to work translating the Bible into German, using Erasmus's Greek New Testament for that part of the Scriptures. He finished the German New Testament in eleven weeks, but did not complete his translation of the entire Bible until 1534. The vernacular translation of the Scriptures became one of the key characteristics of Protestantism. The laity, who were not likely to know Latin, were encouraged to read the Bible, because the Word of God does not require theologians and priests in order to be understood. Luther felt that the truth of the Bible was open to anyone who read or heard it with an open mind and a pure heart. He was convinced that everyone should reach the same conclusions as he and was highly intolerant of those who did not. Luther quickly faced the problem arising from making the Bible available to all. Not all who read it agreed with his interpretation, and they demanded the freedom to reach their own, often different conclusions. Luther objected that this would lead to chaos and denounced it as the work of the devil to undermine the truth. While he never proposed that he had the sole authority to establish the correct interpretation of Scripture, he often acted as if he did. When word came to him at Wartburg in 1522 that preachers in and around Wittenberg, including his friend Andreas Karlstadt, were promoting more-radical changes in the Church than he thought right, he returned home to retake control.

Peasants' War. Karlstadt and Thomas Miintzer were the leading radical preachers at Wittenberg of what has become called the Radical Reformation. As befitting for those who believed that everyone had the right to interpret Scripture, they disagreed with each other as much as with Luther or the Catholic Church. Miintzer went well beyond Karlstadt in proposing a radical transformation of society. Miintzer believed that the age of revelation had not ended with the death of the last apostle and God could give new revelation to some men, such as himself. He proclaimed that God had revealed to him that the harvest time of the world was at hand and he would be God's scythe for his harvest. Violence against the ungodly was necessary to prepare the world for Christ's second coming. Luther's return enabled him to wrestle control of the Reformation in Wittenberg back from the radicals, but expelling them from the city simply moved them into different locales to preach their ideas. By early 1523 Miintzer's gospel of violence was finding an audience among German peasants. Economic and social changes were having a severe impact on the peasants, who looked to Luther, the man who challenged the authority of pope and emperor, for leadership against the established powers. The peasants misinterpreted such Lutheran terms as the freedom of the Christian and the priesthood of the believers as referring to the material

world. Since they as Christians were free, they should be free from serfdom, and as priests they had the right to the clergy's property. Miintzer himself led the peasants into battle against the nobles in May 1525. He promised his followers that God would protect them from their enemies by empowering him to catch the cannonballs in his sleeves. It proved untrue, and they were slaughtered. As this and other violent episodes of the German Peasants' War unfolded, the peasants found that Luther was not as sympathetic to their cause as they thought. Early in the rebellion he had urged the nobles to satisfy the just demands of the peasants, but as the violence and chaos escalated, he turned against them. He called on the nobles and princes to use whatever violence was necessary to put down the rebellion. The authorities did not need his encouragement to do it, but his angry attack on the peasants was damaging to his popularity among the lower classes. Catholics meanwhile were making the case to the nobles that rebellion and chaos were exactly what would happen if heretics were allowed to go free. Consequently, large numbers in both the upper and lower classes returned to Catholicism, blunting what had been the Reformation's triumphant advance until then. The Peasants' War proved to be a significant factor in the subsequent religious division of Germany.

Political Authority. Luther responded to the chaos of the Peasants' War by defining more precisely his concept of political authority. Since Scripture requires obedience to authority “which is from God” (Romans 13:1), the Christian has the obligation to obey properly constituted rulers. Christians who rebel against legitimate rulers dare to put themselves above God. Should the ruler order the subjects to do something evil, such as denouncing true religion, Christians have the obligation of passive resistance, disobeying but accepting what punishment the ruler might impose for rebellion. Luther needed the support of German princes for his reform of religion to go forward. He had hoped at first that the German bishops would provide the leadership for the reformed Church. Few did, however, and Luther turned to the princes. He had not intended to turn over control of the Church to them, but what was intended as a temporary arrangement in which the princes would administer the church's resources and see that true religion was taught to the people became permanent. From the princes' perspective, Luther's views were an opportunity to enhance their authority, and many eagerly accepted it.

Controversy with Erasmus. The Peasants' War had barely ended when Luther found himself in a heated dispute with Erasmus. The humanist had hoped to keep out of the emerging Reformation, since his agenda did not include any break with Rome. Although he defended Luther's right to be heard, he objected to his position on Scripture, which, he declared, allowed even cobblers to decide matters of theology. The issue that pushed Erasmus into the fray was the issue of free will. Did the soul have freedom to accept or reject divine grace? Luther maintained that the soul was incapable of rejecting grace. In 1525 Erasmus stated his case that souls have free will, but beyond that he did not want to dispute theology with Luther. That same year Luther responded with On the Bondage of the Will. It presented the fullest case for his position that grace is an entirely free gift from God that the soul can not resist. Erasmus had tried to be conciliatory, since he had always sought to avoid this sort of theological debate; Luther's response was harsh and personal. Many humanists were dismayed at its tone, feeling that the Prince of Humanists deserved more respect, and they concluded that Luther's cause was not necessarily theirs. Younger humanists largely supported Luther. Philip Melanchthon, the best Greek scholar among the Lutherans, remained loyal to Luther, although he had tried in vain to persuade Luther to tone down his language toward Erasmus. Humanism's time, however, had largely passed.

Zwingli. Luther became involved in another theological controversy three years later. As Lutheranism gained success in the south German cities, it ran into competition with a different approach to reform led by Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich. With Emperor Charles V declaring his intentions of enforcing the imperial ban against Luther and his followers, the two Protestant leaders hoped to unite against the Catholic forces. The key issue of difference between them was in the definition of the Eucharist. Zwingli denied the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Sacrament and proclaimed only a symbolic presence. An exchange of pamphlets on the issue had already marked out their disagreement when Luther and Zwingli met at Marburg Castle in October 1529. Although they agreed on a wide range of issues, the definition of the Eucharist remained a stumbling block. For Luther, the word is in the words of the Sacrament “For this is my body” truly meant “is.” For Zwingli, it meant “symbolizes.” Luther stomped out of the meeting in anger, and the two branches of Protestantism went their separate ways.

Protestants. Emperor Charles V had called a meeting of the Imperial Diet for 1529 to deal with the Lutherans. Although the meeting was cut short by war with France and the Turkish attack on Vienna, it is noteworthy because the German princes and cities signed a petition they intended to present to Charles asking for religious freedom. They signed it as “the protesting estates,” which gave rise to the term Protestant. The following year a meeting of the diet did take place. An effort led by Melanchthon to forge a compromise failed to gain acceptance. The diet then decreed that the Lutherans would have one year to return to Catholicism and give back the church lands they had seized or face the emperor's full military might. Before the year was up, war resumed with France and the Ottoman Empire, the same problems that had prevented Charles from dealing forcefully with the Lutherans ever since 1521, and he had to call on the Lutheran princes for help. They organized the Schmalka-Idic League in 1531 to create a united front. It succeeded in winning temporary toleration of their religion while Charles had to deal with his major foes outside of Germany. By the time he gained a long enough respite from war with the French and the Turks in 1547 to deal militarily with the Lutherans, they had become too well entrenched to be rooted out. Eight years of off-and-on war resulted in defeat for Charles, who was forced to accept the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. It recognized the right of the German princes to choose between Catholicism and Lutheranism as the religion of their states and established legal existence for Lutheran churches in those principalities that chose Lutheranism. Germany became permanently divided between Catholic and Lutheran.

Germanic Movement. Luther was largely concerned about the German Church; he took little interest in other parts of Europe. Perhaps for that reason Lutheranism remained a Germanic movement. It had success where there was a strong Germanic element—the Scandinavian countries, where the kings of Denmark and Sweden imposed Lutheranism on their churches in 1537 and 1540 respectively, and Prussia, where in 1525 the grandmaster of the Teutonic Knights proclaimed himself Duke Albert and turned his new duchy Lutheran. Elsewhere there were few who were fully committed to Lutheran theology, even if they were called Lutherans by their Catholic opponents. Aspects of Luther's theology influenced other Protestants, and, more importantly, his example and courage inspired them. The Evangelical Church, the term the Lutherans preferred, was more conservative than the other forms of Protestantism—the Reformed Churches and the Anabaptists.


Eric Gritsch, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964).

Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986).

Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

Gerald Strauss, Luthers House of Learning: The Indoctrination of the Young in the German Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

About this article

Martin Luther and the Reformation

Updated About content Print Article


Martin Luther and the Reformation